Why Eye Doctors Play a Key Role in Overall Health

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Do your patients know that nearly 300 diseases can be detected from the eye?

“The optometrist, in my opinion, is one of the best-kept secrets,” said internist Dr. Derrick Desilva, in Open Your Eyes, a documentary about how important the eyes are to overall health. Most people don’t realize that many different diseases manifest in the eye. In fact, the back of the eye is the only place in the body that you can actually see the blood vessels.

Here’s how to highlight the importance of annual eye exams through patient education and let patients know how you can help diagnose and prevent many diseases.

An eye exam is a non-invasive way that a doctor can look inside the body, without a blood test, imaging or surgery.

The top 3 conditions doctors can spot in an eye exam

Spread the message to patients that an eye exam is a non-invasive way that a doctor can look inside the body, without a blood test, imaging or surgery. The eyes can reveal a wide range of systemic disorders, often before other symptoms develop. For example:

  1. High blood pressure. This might present as a tiny broken blood vessel in the white of the eye, called a subconjunctival hemorrhage. Swelling or bulging of the eye can be another sign of underlying hypertension.
  2. Diabetes. Patients may not have any symptoms or notice changes to their vision in the early stages of this disease. But vision loss as a result of diabetes can be treated much more effectively if caught earlier. “There’s a perception that when diabetes starts to affect your eye, you’re going to go blind,” ophthalmologist Brian Stagg, M.D., told AARP. “But when it’s caught in time, there’s a lot we can do to prevent that to save your vision.” In fact, every year optometrists diagnose more than 400,000 patients with diabetic retinopathy who did not even know they had diabetes.
  3. Heart disease. In a 2021 study, researchers identified a potential new marker that shows cardiovascular disease may be present in a patient using an optical coherence tomography (OCT) scan. The study suggests it may be possible to detect heart disease during an eye examination by the presence of lesions on the retina—small plaque deposits inside the eye that are evidence of ischemia, decreased blood flow due to heart disease.

Many other diseases can be detected with a comprehensive eye exam as well. Dry eye is the most common eye symptom of the chronic inflammatory disease rheumatoid arthritis. Dry eye may also indicate a thyroid disorder, since hyperthyroidism can cause protruding eyeballs and the lids can’t cover the surface of the eye as well. And patients may not know that the eyelid is one of the most common places to get and spot skin cancer.

Eye doctors are ‘on the forefront to save lives and prevent disease’

The documentary Open Your Eyes was created to educate the public on why eye exams are essential and the impact eye doctors can have on public health, said Kerry Gelb, O.D., a practicing optometrist and president of ALLDocs who is featured in and helped fund the film. The goal was to inform the public that the optometrist does much more than prescribe glasses and contact lenses, he said.

The eye is a biomarker for nearly 300 diseases, from high blood pressure to skin cancer.

The eye is a biomarker for nearly 300 diseases, said Dr. Gelb. “Now, even the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s through the eye by the optometrist is within grasp. We are the only primary care profession that can actually see blood vessels noninvasively, so this puts the OD on the forefront to save lives and prevent disease.”

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